Michael Otterson: How do Mormons answer 'not Christian' claims?
How do Mormons answer 'not Christian' claims?
I had been a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter -day Saints for just a few days when I encountered my first experience of anti-Mormon prejudice.
I was fresh out of a baptismal font where I had been fully immersed. The missionary who baptized me raised his right arm, called me by name and said: "Having been commissioned of Jesus Christ, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." Then, I was buried in the water and brought out of it — a reflection of that magnificent New Testament symbolism that represents the burial and resurrection of Christ as well as a symbolic washing away of sins and spiritual rebirth.
It was the evening of December 15, 1967 — a Friday — in a chapel in Liverpool, England. On the following Sunday I attended church there and "took the sacrament" for the first time as a fully-fledged member. The "sacrament" is our name for communion — where we eat and drink the symbolic representation of Christ's body and blood. This is both a reminder of his redeeming sacrifice for humanity and a weekly renewal of our promise to "always remember him." Forty-five years later, I look back on that experience and the feelings it evoked with perfect recall.
A couple of days after my baptism the casual conversation among a group of friends fell to my recent conversion. Some were intrigued, even fascinated. A couple were indifferent. My best friend and former drinking partner hoped anxiously that my opting for lemonade rather than our customary pint of beer would be a passing phase. (It wasn't.)
But the reaction I remember most was from a young woman of my age who simply declared, with self-assurance indistinguishable from arrogance: "But you're not Christian and you don't believe in forgiveness." It was not a question, but a declaration, delivered with a finality reminiscent of a judge's gavel rendering verdict on a hapless miscreant.
She was a high-church Anglican, and the ensuing conversation wasn't pretty. It was my first taste of the feeling of utter frustration in trying to penetrate a mind so tightly shuttered that no amount of reasoning could pry it open.
I remembered this over the past week after a Baptist pastor made a similar, very public stumble. I've known a lot of wonderful Baptists over the years and this outburst was not at all typical of those I've met. But expecting some pastors to represent Mormon teachings accurately is seriously problematic. We don't ask the coach of the New York Yankees to explain English cricket. There are some things he just won't get, or won't want to. And if you ask people with a vested interest to define someone else's faith, you're in danger of getting a lot of words but zero enlightenment.
Since the statement was made at a political event and the Church has no interest in becoming embroiled in a presidential campaign, the church declined to weigh in. When journalists began to call, we simply told them that anyone wanting to understand the Christ-centered nature of our faith need only go to Mormon.org, and we provided the link to several pages of our teachings on Christ.
Mormons do not pretend that their understanding of Christ is identical to that of Christian orthodoxy. We embrace the New Testament and much of what the modern Christian world teaches about the Savior of the world, but we do not stop there. We have a lot more to add about the Son of God, and it is that additional revelation that causes the real rub with some orthodox Christians. To us, however, refusing to accept further enlightenment on the mission of Jesus Christ is like a math teacher telling his or her students they must stop at multiplication tables. No algebra or calculus allowed.
Polling data shows that the biggest problem for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that about half the population knows nothing about us. But gradually, things are changing. As I've said before in this column, unfamiliarity and misunderstanding will continue to dissipate as the church's membership grows. Research shows that people have a far better view of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when they know a member personally. There is a point when those people who have seen Mormons caricatured in their Sunday School classes realize that the second-hand prejudices they have learned don't fit with their first- hand experiences with faithful Latter-day Saints.
For those who want to accelerate that process of understanding, our churches are open to all every Sunday. Use the address locator on our Web site to find the nearest chapel to you, and feel free to drop by. If you try to track the number of references to Jesus Christ in the service, you may lose count. So just observe the families, listen to the prayers, leaf through the hymn book to see if any of the hymns seem familiar, and make up your own mind as to how Christian our people are. Jesus taught us: "By their fruits, ye shall know them."
Michael Otterson is the managing director for the Public Affairs Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This piece was originally written for the Washington Post